Steve Yeager is an American independent filmmaker with twenty-five years of experience in acting and directing in both the film and theater communities. His 1998 movie DIVINE TRASH won the Filmmakers Trophy for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. He has worked with actors such as Howard Rollins, Jr. (Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actor for RAGTIME), Steve Buscemi, Kathleen Turner, and the Director John Waters.
Mere days after Hurricane Irene whipped up the East Coast, I met Steve at an outdoor cafe in Charles Village, an eclectic urban neighborhood in Baltimore that is home to the Johns Hopkins University, the Baltimore Museum of Art, numerous charming “painted lady” row houses, and quite a few pubs with wonderful sidewalk seating. Against the backdrop of city buildings, piles of tree limbs, and the hustle and bustle of folks getting back to business after a brush with disaster, Steve sketched out the details of his current project, the film EDWIN WILSON, and shared his thoughts on what it’s like to be a director. An excerpt of our talk is posted below. (The full interview is posted under the Notes section of my Facebook page).
Early Career Path
JA: Filmmaking… Did you know this was what you always wanted to do? When you were a kid, did you grow up and say, “I’m gonna make movies”?
SY: I didn’t. After I got a lead in a sixth grade play, I was leaning toward acting. But then I went to the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which is a real technical school. I did not belong there. It was a fight to get through. The emphasis there is not on the arts. The concentration is science and math… I had an awful time.
JA: If you were leaning toward acting early on, then why did you choose a trade school like BPI for your high school years?
SY: Starting in ninth grade, some of my friends were going into classes there [grins], and I did not do a lot of investigating. I didn’t know that I really wanted to be an artist. I knew I really liked theater, but I wasn’t thinking professionally.
Steve also shared that the other reason he went to BPI was a promise to his dad. He told his father he would get a technical degree — and he did. He was even accepted into Towson University’s engineering program, but two weeks after he got there, he dropped all his engineering courses and switched to theater and English. “By the time I was a sophomore, I cared more about the overall productions than I did about just one role.” After that, becoming an independent filmmaker was just a matter of time, and lots of hard work.
Young Filmmakers Workshop
Steve teaches acting and directing for UMBC and the Towson University. He also runs a summer film camp for 10-17 year olds called the Young Filmmakers Workshop. When he told me the themes for past years camps (“Zombies,” “Film Noir,” and “Body Snatchers”), I wanted to sign up! But, alas, I’m too old. Bummer, because I’m apparently missing out on one heck of an opportunity.
SY: The younger kids do short films and the older kids do longer features. For the past two years though, we’ve done vignettes so that we could get more kids involved… and we show all the films at The Senator theater (Baltimore’s historic single screen art deco movie theater) on a Sunday morning in October and the kids come and the parents pool their resources and rent a couple limos for the kids. We roll out the red carpet and they come all dressed up. It’s their big ‘Hollywood’ opening.
JA: Fantastic! Do you think next summer’s theme will be supernaturally related?
SY: [pauses diplomatically] Well, each year we try to come up with a different theme. We haven’t figured out yet what we’re going to do next year. Each year I always try to set the bar a little higher. Last year, we did a Bollywood musical. I had all 60 kids out on this athletic field with no shade, 100 degree heat, doing a big Bollywood dance number.
JA: Hey, at least it wasn’t football practice, right?
SY: [laughs] Right. This year I promised the kids we’d do a scene in 3D. My graphics designer — who worked with George Lucas for 10 years — assures me that we can do the program cover in 3D at least. [Teaching the Young Filmmakers Workshop] is probably one of the more rewarding things I do. I’ve had half a dozen kids go on to film programs in major colleges.
JA: What is your goal with the summer camp? Other than giving them a chance to be creative and have some fun, what are you trying to accomplish with the Young Filmmakers Workshop?
SY: From the very beginning, we tell them that there are jobs in the film industry other than just being the director and the camera person. You can do props, you can do sets… The kids that sign up for the production design program seem to come back year after year.
Current Project: Edwin Wilson
Steve’s currently pursuing an MFA at UMBC. Fellow students’ backgrounds are as varied as Steve’s (there’s a professional dancer, still photographer, model designer, and engineer). Steve’s master thesis project is the movie EDWIN WILSON, which is the story of his uncle’s untimely death. (Steve’s uncle, Edwin Wilson, was a U.S. military member stationed in Germany during WWII. Two weeks after V-Day was declared, Edwin was poisoned in a German restaurant. He died two days after his nineteenth birthday.)
Edwin’s girlfriend, a Rosie the Riveter type character, will be shown in the film writing letters to Edwin and receiving the horrible news of his death. Steve and his crew filmed that emotional moment at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum.
The UMBC 2012 Thesis Show opens February 1, 2012.
So how about you? Did you ever dream of being a filmmaker? Do you wish there was an “Old Filmmakers Workshop”? What do you think of the pictures from the set of EDWIN WILSON? Doesn’t the young actress who plays the Rosie the Riveter character look just like her?!? Steve, thanks for sharing your inspirational stories and fascinating career with us!